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UFC: London Calling... Can England's finest become heavyweight champion in the next year?

The UFC has announced it will be returning to London on 23rd July after its blockbuster show in March.

The last time we saw the Octagon on these shores, fan favourites Tom Aspinall, Arnold Allen, Paddy Pimblett and Molly McCann all recorded wins in front of a boisterous home crowd.

With the UFC's announcement, we’re looking at five fighters who could have a UFC belt around their waist in the next 12 months, starting with one of England’s finest…

Heavyweight – Tom Aspinall

The sky appears to be the limit for Tom Aspinall. Though most of his fights have been behind closed doors, Aspinall fought in front of a full house at London’s O2 in March and relished the occasion, beating Alexander Volkov with a straight armbar.

He’s won all five of his fights in the Octagon, but if there’s one question mark over the Englishman, it’s that he’s not yet faced any adversity in his UFC career, and we don’t know how he’ll respond to being taken past six minutes of a fight. In five fights, he’s recorded four first-round finishes, and spent an average of three minutes in the Octagon per fight.

An accomplished boxer, Aspinall has the movement and speed of a much lighter man, and has his black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to fall back on should a fight get taken to the ground.

Welterweight – Khamzat Chimaev

The rise of Khamzat Chimaev through the UFC ranks has been remarkable, and one wonders where it ends.

Rising to prominence after winning a fight at middleweight, then dropping down to welterweight – a 16lbs difference – in 10 days to win his second UFC fight, Chimaev has taken on all comers.

His fourth fight was against 11-ranked Li Jingliang, and not 10 seconds into the fight, Chimaev picked Li up, carried him to Dana White for a quick chat, and threw him to the mat. It was Chimaev’s fourth UFC fight, and through those first four fights he’d received precisely one significant strike.

Despite being an elite wrestler, Chimaev decided to shake things up a bit for his fifth fight, against #2 ranked Gilbert Burns, standing toe to toe with the Brazilian in a jaw-dropping Fight of the Year contender. To be able to win a decision over a fighter of that calibre, while fighting to your own weaknesses is as exciting for the fans as it is unnerving for the rest of the welterweight division.

He may be behind Leon Edwards in the pecking order, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Chimaev with the belt around his waist in 12 months’ time, even if he has to get past the great Kamaru Usman to do so.

Light heavyweight – Jiri Prochazka

With no disrespect intended to the incumbent, the light heavyweight title is there to be taken. While Glover Teixeira's five-fight winning streak – including impressive victories over Anthony Smith and Thiago Santos – set up a thoroughly-deserved title shot with Jan Blachowicz, few expected the 42-year-old to take the belt. But the Brazilian upset the odds once again to become the UFC’s oldest first-time champion. How long the veteran can hold onto the title in such a stacked division remains to be seen.

Aleksandar Rakic and Blachowicz are set to meet, with the winner looking for a title shot, but Czech fighter Jiri Prochazka will be first in line for a crack at the belt on the back of a 12-fight winning streak, which took him to the Rizin light heavyweight title.

Prochazka didn’t want to join the UFC until he believed he could compete at the top, which we’ve seen in devastating fashion with KO wins over Volkan Oezdemir and Dominick Reyes. His ground game remains something of an unknown, and BJJ black belt Teixeira may cause problems there, but as long as the Czech can live with that, his stand-up should be more than enough to put the champion away.

Lightweight – Islam Makhachev

The lightweight division is arguably the most stacked in the UFC, and you could make a case for five or six guys holding the belt in a year’s time.

Charles Oliveira is the reigning champion, initially capturing the vacant lightweight title in a Comeback of the Year win over Michael Chandler. UFC newcomer Chandler must have thought the belt was his when knocking down Oliveira in the first round, but the Brazilian survived and landed a TKO win of his own early in the second.

Chandler then faced Justin Gaethje in an all-out firefight. Thought the contest would win Fight of the Year, Chandler would lose by decision, and it’s Gaethje who gets the title shot.

Had Gaethje better used his all-American wrestling skills, he may we have had a belt by now; instead he’s opted to entertain the fans and keep fights standing, winning 10 post-fight bonuses in his nine UFC fights. He's 7/5 to beat Oliveira when the pair meet in May, but regardless of who wins, Islam Makhachev will be eyeing a title shot of his own.

It could be a couple of fights away, but until we see anyone who can live with Makhachev’s ground game, there’s no reason to think the belt is beyond him.

Bantamweight – Petr Yan

Despite losing title fights twice to Aljamain Sterling, Petr Yan won’t be going anywhere. After beating Jose Aldo for the vacant title in 2020, Yan gave his belt away by DQing himself against Sterling when well on his way to victory.

He claimed the interim title with a comfortable decision against Cory Sandhagen, and was arguably unlucky to lose a decision to Sterling at UFC 273.

Dana White himself suggested the judges got the decision wrong, and while TJ Dillashaw may be up next for the Russian, you wouldn’t be surprised to see Yan take on Sterling for a third time, and finally come out with the belt.

By @LiamWilliamsSJ

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